A few weeks ago, we posed a question to the Audiences Everywhere staff: What movie best represents your understanding of America and your experience as an American? The current moment is a complicated moment to live in America, and a bit of introspection and cultural self-evaluation seems in order for everyone. So, starting on July 4th and continuing through the entire month, we will be running essay responses to this inquiry in an attempt to understand who we are as a nation. If you’re interested in participating, send your essay or pitch to firstname.lastname@example.org. Next in the series, a look at Disney’s Miracle, sports, and family.
I wasn’t always as cynical as I am now. For much of my younger life, all I needed to be happy was a sport to play and (most of the time) people with whom to play it. When I wasn’t in school, my suburban childhood consisted almost entirely of spending time outdoors playing soccer, football, basketball, and simulating professional versions of all of the above. These days were occasionally punctuated by a brief fist-fight with my best friend or playing these same sports except on a game system instead of real life. I was my parents’ party trick (or annoyance) as I’d rattle off the endless statistics I had memorized. It has always been my tendency to completely engross myself in a segment of culture (now movies), but sports were often different. They provided a different form of escape, one that I desperately needed as a kid.
My parents divorced when I was well into high school. Prior to that, the best memories I have of my family being together revolved around sports. My brother’s and my soccer games, my basketball games, watching college football games: these were the times where my family was together, people were generally happy, and we fit neatly into the idea of a typical family. While it’s obviously easy to read too deeply into the emotional weight of sports in my life, they time-stamped a particular phase of my life. Teams were important to me. They offered the intense stability I desired. It’s not surprising that sports movies offered me a similar fix.
My absolute favorite movie for years was Like Mike (2002). That’s the one where Lil Bow Wow stumbles upon a magical pair of basketball sneakers (supposedly Michael Jordan’s old ones) and becomes a good enough player to be drafted into the NBA as a 13-year-old. Like Mike taught me about dreaming (even absurd dreams). Other sports movies taught me as well. Coach Carter (2005) taught me the importance of role models. The Rocky movies taught me about love, grief, friendships, and perseverance. Rudy (1993) taught me to not undervalue myself. Maybe most significantly, Miracle (2004) taught me about family
Miracle is perhaps the second most American movie ever made (just behind Rocky IV). It follows the remarkable journey of the 1980 U.S Olympic hockey team that miraculously beat the powerhouse team from Russia. It stars Kurt Russell as Head Coach Herb Brooks, the typical, vaguely Midwestern, stern-but-fair coach that we see in movies. The team is made up of young, white hairy guys who are there for a myriad of reasons. Some are there because it’s their dream. Some are killing time before signing in the NHL. And the rest are just trying to squeeze one more year of playing out before joining the workforce. Miracle is not only American in its essence, it is also deeply imbued with American ideals in its construction. The crazy thing is that even as our world seems to be politically crumbling, I couldn’t help but be swept off my feet by the earnestness with which this movie presents its agenda.
American nationalism disturbs people (including me) because the foundation on which this country was founded is deeply disturbing. Paradoxically to the way most people view Americanism (or the way dystopian fiction grapples with the long-term side effects), sports movies genuinely try to highlight the best they see in America. Miracle doesn’t want to heal past wrongs, it only seeks to inspire viewers.
While plenty of niche-inspirational movies corner the Christian bookstore shelves, Miracle unassumingly eats away at the viewer unlike the rest of this genre. We see fairly bland (did I mention hairy?) guys, bond, discuss their lives, play hockey, drink beer, and complain. They shed blood together, often because of each other. They hate each other. They lose teammates. They love each other. By the time the Olympics rolls around, they come to embody that most-high American ideal: the family.
My American familial experience lacked the catalyst for all relationships both good and bad: time spent together. My parents were not absent by any means. Instead the divisional factors came down to scheduling, poor prioritization, crises, and a house big enough for us each to disappear in our own rooms. Sports legitimately alleviated some of these issues for a while. I would spend hours every week bonding with my soccer team, playing endless backyard sports with my neighbors, and hearing my parents, together, cheer me on from the sidelines. It gave my brother and I common ground in that we both played soccer, and my younger sister was forced to attend all of both of our soccer games. Sports were the only true family outing so it’s necessary that they outline my familial experience.
I saw Miracle in theaters with my mom, dad, and brother in 2004. I remember the rush of watching the U.S defeat Russia, but more than anything I remember the endurance of the athletes and watching their pain. One particular scene features a brutal night of conditioning following a tie to the Swedish team. Coach Brooks blows the whistle time after time for the players to start skating. When asked what team he plays for, one player finally answers Team U.S.A instead of his previous college team. This is where it clicked for me as a kid.
Teams sort their identity out through shared pain, combining each individual identity into a singular one and then filing down the rough edges to make a successful team. As the players gather for beers after bleeding and sweating on the ice for hours, as some guys laugh, some guys think, some guys flirt, and some guys listen, a shared identity forms.
After my parents divorced, we were all able to heal. Forced proximity led to lengthy amounts of time together. For the first time, we all shared pain. We cried in front of each other and endlessly supported one another. We opened up and we didn’t hide. After this, I stopped playing sports as well. Sure, it’s my prerogative to read whatever causal relationship into that that I want, but I like to think the gap sports filled was no longer empty. I didn’t have to play a soccer game every Saturday morning to gain the support of my parents.
I’m careful not to make the claim that the ideal of the American family is founded on sharing pain because I understand that isn’t everyone’s experience. But my understanding of American familial relationships, post sports, is borne of pain, honesty, and understanding. But we all share pain. We all seek identity through other people. Sports is no different.
What Miracle provides that other sports movies do not is a sense of communion. The players are nearly unidentifiable, so the only choice is to identify with the team as a whole, and identify with America by proxy. To understand that America’s pain is bigger than a hockey game, but to still have the humility to play the game, knowing it will inspire others. That moment you recognize that the music is swelling, not for the first time and probably not for the last, but that you had something to do with it.
The cynic in me wants to scoff at these claims, disregard my emotional openness as self-seriousness, and go back to watching “high-art” films. But knowing now that the sharing of pain is one of my foundational American experiences, I’ll fearfully let the orchestra play, the narration continue, and the freeze frame commence.
Featured Image: Buena Vista Pictures